In case you're wondering, the title of this post refers to the iconic Molly Shannon Saturday Night Live skit in which she plays awkward Catholic schoolgirl, Mary Katherine Gallagher. Though I managed not to bury my fingers in my armpits and sniff them nor bare my undergarments to the world in a spastic fit, I was acutely aware of my professional angles the whole time I was in Australia. "Superstar!" all over the place.
You see, I had come to Perth as the sole emissary of The Toa Nafasi Project at the 2017 Biennial Conference of the International Association of Special Education with Angi being otherwise occupied back in Zanzibar and Gasto stranded in Arusha without a visa. This led to a very heightened state of awareness on my part, a mixture of being super-nervous and hyper-confident, practically thrumming with energy and anxiety literally the whole time. Really, I think the next time I attend a professional event alone, I need some sort of meds....preferably with a long half-life....
According to my pals at the IASE, however, I did superbly, so I guess I managed to hide my nerves fairly well. No spontaneous utterances of "Superstar!" followed by extended falling down and damage of the immediate surroundings....at least not in public anyway....
The conference itself was quite a marvel. There were roughly 200 attendees from 33 different countries around the world, all gathered together at the Perth Convention and Exhibition Center in downtown Perth, Western Australia (aka the end of the world!).
I had never been to Australia before so this in itself was a brand-new experience for me. I traveled from New York to Dubai and Dubai to Perth, spent about a week in Perth, and then left Perth for Doha, Doha to Kilimanjaro. Shortly after reuniting with Drogo and friends in Moshi, I was off to Zanzibar for Round Two of my escapades with Kaitlin who was due back in the U.S. to prepare for her sophomore year of college. That, however, is a whole other blog entry as we celebrated the ten-year anniversary of my stepping foot in Africa on July 4, 2007. Hijinks, capers, and shenanigans galore.
But back to the IASE conference. Never mind I had just traveled 36hours from NYC and arrived in Perth in the dead of night on a Sunday; the very first day, I was scheduled to give a presentation about Toa Nafasi as an IASE "volunteer service project" site and talk about how IASE members could come to Moshi and help work with us, namely in the vein of teacher training.
This went pretty well as it was a round-table seated discussion and even though I was the speaker, it was not an "all eyes on me" situation where my nerves really kick in. I don't know what it is, I am certainly not shy nor introverted by any means, but for some reason, public speaking makes me absolutely insane and my essential tremor kicks in like nobody's business! It happened in the States too, at fundraising pitches and it is soooo embarrassing. One of my friends here in Moshi joked that he should put a piano under my fingers and I'd play like Beethoven!
The second day, I had to present my paper, so this was the BIG DAY. And yes, I shook like a leaf! But my audience was small, engaged, and encouraging, so I was able to make it through and field questions with confidence ("Superstar!") and some modicum of knowledge. Obviously, since I was the one speaking, I don't have pics of this, but here are a few mementos from the day: my conference badge and program (with a note reminding me not to forget my photo album), the sign outside my room and the podium within, and my little blurb in the program.
As you can see from the above blurb, the talk that I gave about Toa centered around the teachers, not the students, and how Toa has provided them with a sense of professional achievement outside of government-sanctioned means. Not that they are lawless and running wild, but that where the government of Tanzania has failed these girls - in their studies, in their employment opportunities, in the making of them anything other than wife or mother - Toa has picked up the slack and offered them the chance to work and learn a valuable skill, training them in-service as they go.
The paper itself is a bit idealistic and self-congratulatory I concede, but not everyone need know our dirty laundry, right?! And, obviously, creating change on this level is going to carry its share of challenges some of which we were able to overcome, some of which we are still tackling. At any rate, I think it went over really well, and the paper titled "Gaining from Training: Cultivating a Professional Persona in a Rural Setting" will be published in the JIASE (Journal of the International Association of Special Education) sometime in the near future. (Allow me here a quick finger sniff of righteous vainglory....)
Day Three brought yet another spotlight on me/Toa ("Superstar!" all over again) as I clambered onto an even bigger stage to speak to ALL the conference participants and tout the next biennial conference which will be held in July 2019 here in Tanzania. I was not as nervous for this as Iris (the president of the IASE) was up on stage with me and we labored through some tech problems to run the PowerPoint presentation about Sebastian Kolowa Memorial University in Lushoto where that conference will be held. The (very green) save the date card is below.
When that mess was finally over, I got to relax and simply be an attendee in peace and quiet with as many finger sniffs as needed to settle my frazzled nerves.
I enjoyed the talks of other conference-goers, such as Morgan Chitiyo, a Zimbabwe-born professor at Duquesne University (before you get your hopes up, he's married, Mom....). Morgan took my breath away, quite frankly. His talk was amazing and resonated on so many levels. I guess I was lucky because it was all about disability within the African context, so very relevant to the work that Toa does. (Although after I gave my talk the previous day, a frantic Vietnamese woman sought me out to say that she was experiencing the same obstacles and challenges about disability in her part of the world! So, really, the African context is kind of indicative of the greater human context, is it not?)
Here's a clip of Morgan's keynote speech in which he talks about the massive population of the African continent and the large number of people with disabilities living within. By shutting them out of schools and the workforce, African governments are essentially losing vast numbers of people who are perfectly qualified to learn and work. He refers to this group as "the forgotten tribe." Morgan also talks about how, if Africa as a continent truly wants to develop and move forward in the global community, it will need this tribe to do so. The strength of Africa is in its people and by marginalizing vast numbers of its citizenry, it is holding its own development back. I strongly recommend taking a moment to watch this, and to look Morgan up if you are even remotely interested in disability (or development) in Africa.
Aside from Morgan's talk, I did get to attend others' as well as make a lot of new contacts. I think once my time in the spotlight was over, I was able to loosen up and just schmooze like my normal self (still a "Superstar!"). There were many Africans in attendance, so we tended to band together, but also people from all over Asia and Europe. Not so many from the Americas, however....
For the better part of the week, I was indoors but did get a lovely view of Perth's Elizabeth Quay out the conference center's windows. I was able to book a boat trip on the Swan River later in the week during which I Mary Katherine-spazzed upon seeing a group of baby dolphins splashing in the waves.
The conference ended with a gala dinner during which some special needs children from the Perth area performed for the audience and I took video to show the Toa teachers that even wazungu kids have special needs and they piga ngoma (play drums) just like Danny and Vincent here at the Gabriella Center. (Just as an explanatory FYI, that is Mary Gale, the past-president of the IASE wearing the Statue of Liberty foam crown. The last night, everyone came garbed to rep their respective countries, so MG was lady Liberty from the USA for the evening.)
I was also gifted with not one but TWO certificates that I personally don't really care about, but I knew the Toa teachers would die over. Certification and paperwork is the law of the land here and everyone from the highest parliament member to the girl who cleans your house loves a cheti. So I brought them back to show the teachers and, as I expected, got a lot of ooh's and aah's over them. One is for attending the conference and the other is for being a VSP site. I mean, okay, but I'm much more interested in what the chetis represent than the piece of paper themselves....
Finally, I had a couple days to myself to explore the beauty of Perth unencumbered by nerves and work responsibilities. In addition to my adventures with dolphins on the high seas, I went out to Fremantle, the infamous prison and a World Heritage Site. The British sent their convicts to Australia to form a new colony in the mid-1800s, but first on the to-do list? Build your own prison! Yeah, turns out it really sucks to be a convict....
My last day, I went to Caversham Wildlife Park and like an idiot, left my phone (camera) charging in the hotel. Thus begun one of the most awkward days of my life. It truly was like an SNL skit as the only other people on my tour were a Malaysian family who I basically just attached myself to, in order to get some photos taken.
Actually, Shikin, Shahrol, their cousin, auntie, and uncle were the kindest, sweetest people to allow me to tag along on their wildlife tour, from the wombat section to the dingo cage. By the time we got to the penguin pool, we were fast friends. Still, a strange experience to say the least. Mary Katherine definitely would have spazzed out at some point on this tour, but I think I was just too exhausted.
Here's a kangaroo who got super-excited to see me and thought I had food for him before I'd even had my coffee! He took a little off my program and nipped my finger too!!
When we came back later in the day, I finally got the hang of kangaroo-feeding and became quite popular among the hungry marsupial population.
I also got to touch, not hold, a koala. And do not dare call them bears! Like kangaroos and quokkas, they are marsupials!! And, these poor beautiful creatures are under threat of extinction due to a rampant chlamydia epidemic, poor buggers! Makes me so sad because they are the cutest things ever and really have the life: eighteen hours of sleep a day, waking only for feeding and presumably the behavior that got them in trouble with chlamydia in the first place!!
Here's an excellent photo of me with my adopted Malaysian family at the Caversham sign. It's like a game of "which one of these things does not belong?" I should put it on the Toa assessment when we want to test for differentiation....
Finally, I now have proof that real men wear Uggs. An impromptu trip to the Apple store led to this sighting of an Aussie man in his fine, furry footwear. They're not just for sheilas, after all.